While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36 David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
A Shift in Expectations
The crowd welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with shouts of Hosanna and hopes for the return of the Davidic kingdom. One of the hopes and expectations of the promised Messiah was that the kingdom of David would be restored and the oppressors driven out. These are political hopes. They have social, religious, and economic implications. There is a yearning for the “golden age” of Israel. Jesus challenges these assumptions.
“Jesus appeals to another key messianic psalm, 110, in order to argue that the authority of Messiah ‘preexists’ the authority of David…. Jesus is not disputing genealogy but ideology: to be ‘David’s son’ is to stand in solidarity with the restoration vision - that is, the re-legitimation of the temple state. Thus in his interpretation Jesus makes it clear that the Messiah is not David’s son (12:37), rejecting both of the earlier messianic acclamations, 10:47f. and 11:9f. (Myers, 319).”
Jesus, having already critiqued and dismissed the temple institution and mechanics, will not be in the business of restoration. The new social reality called the kingdom of God is the movement of the promised Messiah. This way of life with God will unfold as Jesus has already demonstrated with his life and ministry - Mark chapters 1-8. It will be realized in the world through political, economic, social, and religious alignment with the patterns of the kingdom of God that we have already witnessed in Jesus.
The Price of Power: The Widow’s Offering
Jesus then critiques the scribal leaders - “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Jesus’s critique of these leaders is that they play into the Graeco-Roman honor culture. Jesus has already taught extensively about humble service, particularly in the “first must be last” sections of chapters 9 and 10.
The most shocking charge leveled against the scribes is their “devouring of widow’s houses.” This charge informs the interpretation of the story that Jesus tells to the disciples in the temple.
Mark could be alluding to two practices. The first is the “practice of scribal trusteeship of the estates of widows (who has women could not be entrusted to manage their deceased husband's affairs!) Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness (hence the ‘pretext of long prayers), scribes would earn the legal right to administrate estates. As compensation they would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse (Myers, 320).”
The other practice involves “Mark’s narrative opposition between ‘prayer’ and ‘robbery.’ The site of the scribal prayer is the temple, and the costs of this temple devour the resources of the poor. Jesus, who fiercely opposed to such exploitation in the temple action and demanded a new site for prayer, points to the tragic story of the widow’s mite by way of illustration (Myers, 320).”
Either scenario can be supported through historical and contextual argument. The main point is that the scribes are gaining and maintaining power at the expense of the very people they are called to serve. The widow, one of the triad of vulnerable from the Law - the orphan, the widow, and the alien - is being exploited by the ones who she is supposed to be able to trust. This stands against everything Jesus teaches and the communal foundations of the new social reality called the kingdom of God.
The lesson we can now take from the story of the widow’s giving of the two small coins is not about her piety and graciousness in giving. It is that the institution of the temple, and the mechanics of giving monitored by the scribes, has robbed her of everything she has to live on and thus she is forced to give literally everything she has. She is co-opted into participating in a system that drains her resources but does not invest its collective resources into supporting her well-being. The temple has failed it’s duty. The scribes play the power games of the status-quo. The ones that God called upon the people to protect and support - the orphan, the widow, and the alien - are being devoured by a corrupt system.
Jesus as the Messiah came not to rebuild or reform, but to help us to realize that God is doing something new through him.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- How do we get caught up in playing the power games of our time and place?
- What expectations do we have of Jesus?
- Where do they differ from the way of Jesus in Mark?
- How do our churches as institutions avoid exploiting those whom we are called to serve?